Beyond Almond chef Jason Weiner’s housemade sauerkraut — cured en maison then heated through with a little wine and a few juniper berries — the special guest at our Stella Artois Belgian choucroute garnie dinner last night was not just the brew but a Red Wattle Hog, one of the few heritage creatures currently listed as lovely but in need of our attention on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. A beautiful russet-colored breed with richly flavored meat, the wattle is named after both its hue and flaps of neck skin. (Which, according to Slow Food, apparently have “no known use.”)
As chef Weiner told us, dwindling breeds like the wattle — which cost more and take more time than commercially raised varieties — basically have to be eaten to be saved for future generations. (He also told us they grow to 1300 pounds, or “about the dimensions of a VW bus” with about 60% body fat , “which of course translates to flavor.”) Along with sausages of many stripes, our table was heaped with kraut, roasted vegetables, the wonderful briny mix of pickles, boiled eggs and mustard seed known as sauce gribiche, plus meaty platters of brined and smoked red wattle ham steaks and ribs served in a rich sauce of red wattle jus and butter with some white wine whisked in. (Or, as one attendee mused, “heart-attack sauce.”) All appropriately paired with a tall pint of citrusy Hoegaarten white ale, one of the Belgian beers in Stella’s portfolio.
And, as Chef Weiner noted, the smoking, brining, salting and curing in abundance in our bellies at the end of the night is certainly trendy these days, but all were key during the time of pre-refrigeration when such preservation techniques (along with using all of an animal, because all of an animal was all you had) were needed to keep you in meat from one slaughter to the next, if not through 9 months of the year. It’s “just sort of a happy accident,” he said, “that they all end up tasting so good.”
He also added that it’s more humane to use and then preserve whole animals these days, he noted, since now animals won’t just be slaughtered now for their prime parts and will be used in toto: hence the pickled tongue and sausages piled alongside those chops on our plates. Still, as he took questions about the evening, we have to admit we were pleased that an Edible Manhattan crowd apparently pays just as much attention to the produce as the pig, as one of the most pressing queries was about how to make the kraut.